We can only imagine how they felt, Cleopas and his companion, as they walked from Jerusalem to Emmaus. They are leaving the place where they watched their hopes die, literally, on a cross. There was a report from the women that the tomb where his body was laid to rest is now empty, and that the angels assured them he had risen from the dead, but the others refuse to attach any significance to that report. According to Luke, some of the men thought the women were suffering from hysteria after the trauma of the crucifixion. Cleopas and the person walking with him had no doubt given up a lot to become followers of Jesus, the rabbi from Nazareth. They had hoped he was the long-awaited messiah, but instead of delivering them he wasn’t even able to deliver himself from death at the hands of the Roman authorities. They had suffered a crushing defeat and had no clue what they should do next.
Then a stranger approaches and begins to walk with them. They do not recognize him as the risen Lord, but it seems that no one to whom Jesus appears after the resurrection recognizes him right away. There has to be some sort of sign – calling a person by name, showing them the marks of his wounds, offering the peace of God – that brings recognition. The stranger invites them to tell their story. Why are they so sad? They are astonished that this man is seemingly unaware of the events that unfolded in Jerusalem during the past few days. They open their hearts to him, telling what a shock it was to hear of Jesus’ arrest and his swift crucifixion. How they now felt as though they were in danger, with a choice of hiding behind locked doors with the rabbi’s other followers or fleeing the city. They feel defeated, dejected and alone.
This story takes place on Easter Day, the very day that the women discovered the empty tomb and told them Jesus was risen. Yet Cleopas and his companion, as well as the others, could not see past that empty tomb, which was not a sign of a resurrection victory to them. The stranger begins to explain the events that took place, trying to remind them that they had heard this before, the linking of the prophecies in Scripture, the plan that God had in mind. The disciples never wanted to accept the words that Jesus offered them in preparation for his death and resurrection. It was too much to wrap their minds around, it was inconceivable, and so no matter how many times Jesus tried to tell them, they refused to accept it.
As they approach their destination, they offer hospitality to this stranger who traveled with them along the way. Night is approaching, and that is the right thing to do. They sit down to the evening meal, and their guest takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them. How many times have they seen him do that before? Whenever they shared a meal, Jesus no doubt offered the traditional Jewish blessing over the bread. A few days before, when they shared the Passover Seder, he made a point of telling them to remember him when they shared bread and wine together in the future. Several times they watched him at meals with people who, as observant Jews, they were not supposed to be eating with. They watched him pray and bless and give healing to countless people during their journeys through Israel.
So, it was in that moment that their eyes were opened. They finally recognize who has been traveling with them all day. Jesus is alive – the story told by the women is true after all! Before they can question him further, he is gone. They confessed to one another that their “hearts were burning within them” as he explained scripture to them. Their response is to get up from their meal and run back to Jerusalem, something which was never done at night except in dire emergencies. They rush back to the room where the others remain huddled behind locked doors. They tell the others of their amazing experience, and as they are discussing it, Jesus appears to the group. That post-resurrection story was part of our gospel lesson last week.
Jesus makes several post-resurrection appearances that are variously recorded in the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John. At least four of them occur right on Easter Day. He tells his followers that in the future, people will have to believe in his story without having the benefit of seeing him in person. It will be up to them to carry out his mission, to be witnesses to the world of the message he came to share, of his death and, most importantly, his resurrection. They were faithful and obedient to his command, at great risk to themselves they shared the good news, so effectively that it eventually spread around the world.
Even though we cannot see the resurrected Jesus for ourselves, he encounters us in the much the same way. Some hear a personal call by name. Others have doubts, yet come to fullness of faith. Others encounter Christ when they are at their most defeated, dejected, and alone. We are reminded that just as he chose to listen to Cleopas and his companion pour out their sorrows, so God in Jesus is always willing to listen to us. Just as he chose to open Scripture to them before revealing himself fully, so we can be brought to faith and be strengthened, empowered and comforted through the words of Scripture. Just as those travelers did, we encounter God in the taking, blessing, breaking and giving, whether it be in ordinary meals, at special occasions, or in the meal of bread and wine we share. We encounter God in the hugs, tears, laughter, joys and sorrows of our lives. We are never defeated or alone, because the love of God won and Easter is here to stay. Amen.